254. THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966)

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他人の顔; Tanin no kao

“The world in which Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu came of age as expressive artists was not one for which they had been prepared by their forebears or by any social legacy. The values of prewar Japan had been utterly discredited by their nation’s defeat, the society emasculated by foreign occupiers for the first time in Japanese history. The so-called democracy that was being layered onto the Japanese body politic by temporary American rulers seemed ill fitted to a culture that had never valued individualism or freedom of expression. They wandered forth into a strange new world that had no identity of its own and was distorted by poverty and foreign occupation. Everywhere were symptoms of an existential dilemma on a vast national scale. In retrospect, it seems hardly surprising that the compelling themes of Japanese artists of the day were those of alienation, the search for identity, and the struggle for survival in a wasted landscape…”–Peter Grilli, writing for the Criterion Collection

“Yield to the mask.” —The Face of Another

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mikijirô Hira, Machiko Kyô, Miki Irie

PLOT: Left with a disfigured face after an industrial accident, Okuyama spends his days in bandages while complaining to his wife. Hatching a scheme of questionable ethics with his psychiatrist-surgeon, things change for Okuyama after a cunningly designed mask is crafted to allow him, at least part of the time, to be “normal.” However, the doctor’s warnings of personality shift come true as Okuyama attempts to seduce his own wife to wreak emotional revenge.

Stoll from The Face of Another (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Like 1962’s Pitfall and 1964’s Woman in the Dunes (also Certified Weird), The Face of Another was based on the work of novelist Kôbô Abe. While the psychiatrist appears only passingly in Abe’s book, his role was greatly expanded in the film to allow for a more tangible counterpart to Okuyama.
  • Director Hiroshi Teshigaraha stuck with the classic “academy ratio” and black and white film one last time with this movie, despite the then-current popularity of color and CinemaScope. He surrendered to modernizing pressures with his next movie, The Man Without a Map.
  • The incongruous waltz playing in the opening credits (as well as the German night-club song at the biergarten) was written by Teshigahara’s and Abe’s collaborator, composer Tôru Takemitsu, whose score was also instrumental in Pitfall and Woman in the Dunes.
  • Despite being commercially and critically well-received in its home country, The Face of Another met with a tepid audience beyond Japan’s borders. A number of critics, it seemed, had had just about enough of the intellectualist, art-house cinema that had been bombarding the movie scene for some years by then.
  • Another of Teshigahara’s art buddies — Arata Isozaki — stepped up to the plate, designing the psychiatrist’s morphing, glass-filled office. An architect by vocation, Isozaki went on to design numerous famous buildings, including the MOCA in Los Angeles and the stadium for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though any shot with Okuyama bandaged sticks in the mind, the most jarring scene occurs when he’s fully disguised as a normal person. Having just been released into the custody of his psychiatrist after an arrest for assault, Okuyama and the doctor face a swarm of sack-clay masked citizens descending upon the streets. The doctor looks unnerved by the sight; his patient less so. Before their dramatic “goodbye”, they are utterly enveloped in a sea of faceless faces.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Ever-mutating doctor’s office; sunbeam cooks incestuous brother; the faceless masses

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Face of Another  is essentially a Japanese New Wave art-house musing on the nature of identity. But cranking things into the realm of bizarre is a series of sets and scenes—the doctor’s uncannily undefinable office space, mirrored mirrors, and so forth—as well as strange veering between philosophical and vengeful tones. Throw in a second (and even an obliquely referenced third) story line, a German biergarten in downtown Japan, and the occasional symbolist image (among them a Doorway to Whirling Hair and spontaneous transfiguration to slaughtered livestock), and, well, you could say you’re facing something pretty weird.

Trailer for The Face of Another

COMMENTS: The meaninglessness of personal identity is a troublesome thing to ponder. The interchangeability of any given cog in society’s wheel flies in the face of notions of individuality and the sense of importance of the Self. Meditation on this particularly existential concern has gone on for some time now, with filmmakers taking up the baton of its popular exploration during the French/German/Japanese New Wave period of the ’60s. In The Face of Another, director Hiroshi Teshigahara devotes his third fictional feature to the very explicit dissection of the competition between “person” and “people.” With his generic protagonist, Mr. Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai), Teshigahara does not even provide a first name for his story’s hero. By revisiting the prominent themes of his debut film, Pitfall, and his internationally acclaimed hit, Woman in the Dunes, Teshigahara obviously thinks there is more to say on the matter—and it appears that, at least in 1960s Japan, the “individual” doesn’t stand a chance in the conflict.

Beginning with a disembodied introduction by the (also unnamed) psychiatrist, The Face of Another disengages itself immediately from the audience. This mood is reinforced by a second, more traditional introduction—except that the background exposition is delivered from a literally disembodied head, as the moving X-ray images of Okuyama’s skull explain the combination of negligence and bad luck that has made him faceless. Whether whingeing either at his bourgeois-chic house to his wife (Machiko Kyô) or at work to his boss, Okuyama’s daily grumblings are only interrupted by his medical/philosophical meetings with his psychiatrist. Despite the insistence of those closest to him, Okuyama succumbs to his own ramblings and agrees to a treatment advised by his doctor: wearing the face of another. A model is found and paid, and a new identity is created, one that wholly reflects the patient’s cynicism and alienation. Things devolve hastily into a strange revenge fantasy and a slide into perilous detachment.

Teshigahara uses many mirrored scenes to enhance the effects of The Face of Another. Once while faceless and once while in his mask, Okuyama rents separate flats from the same superintendent, each time witnessing the theft of a yo-yo by the superintendent’s daughter, Yoko. He travels unnoticed in the city’s crowds both wrapped in bandages and masked. Teshigahara even goes so far as to splice in a miniature narrative that doubles the main one: the story of a young woman scarred by nuclear fallout and the challenges she faces. Okuyama’s desire to seduce his wife (so as to prove her unfaithful, or some such nonsense) is mirrored by some subtle references to the psychiatrist’s infidelity.

The unsettling tone of the movie is enhanced by the bizarre combination of very traditional filmmaking (“academy framing,” the use of black and white) with more unconventional methods. Freeze-frames appear, stuttered editing adds jaggedness at times, obviously symbolist imagery crops up only to disappear a moment later (the odd “hair” doorway in the doctor’s office, for example), and two crucial scenes isolate the doctor and patient by spotlight against a blacked-out background. Perhaps in this way Teshigahara asserts his own individuality as a filmmaker: he doesn’t go with the widescreen, color-film flow of the times, but shows he can still use modern tricks.

For a film so riddled with unrelatable characters, The Face of Another is surprisingly compelling. Okuyama’s harried wife is one of perhaps only two characters with whom to sympathize, but her presence in the movie is dwarfed considerably by the interactions between the psychiatrist and his self-centered patient. The former is a classic example of the “evil scientist,” but with an awareness that the progress his is making is likely more hazardous than the problem it purports to solve. As they encounter the swarm of faceless citizens in the street, the doctor says, “some masks come off, some don’t.” The unhappy moral of The Face of Another seems to be that in either case, it doesn’t really matter.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“From the realism of the domestic scenes to the out-and-out surrealism of Hori’s clinic, ‘The Face of Another’ leaves the viewer unsure whether its protagonist is a dangerous criminal, a mental patient, an angst-ridden Everyman of the modern age, or a cipher for Japan’s unstable identity in the post-war period.”–Anton Bitel, Movie Gazette (DVD)

“Surreal, aesthetically formalized shots of the oppressive prosthetic laboratory underscore the atemporal and geographically indeterminate nature of the universal parable.”–Aquarello, Strictly Film School (DVD)

“…a highly engaging and artistic piece of work, opening with the x-rayed skull of Nakadai as he talks about his predicament, moving along to at times haunting shots behind closed doors, the kind of metaphors that lace the film throughout, to its final denouement which is as surreal as it is descriptive.”–Kevin Givear, The Digital Fix (DVD)

IMDB LINK: The Face of Another (1966)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Face of Another (1966) – The Criterion Collection – Links to essays on the film and on the informal trilogy formed together with Pitfall and Woman in the Dunes

The Face of Another – Overview of the film by Jeff Stafford, writing for Turner Classic Movies

DVD INFO: Alas, we have another case of Criterion not keeping up the distribution of its ow n classics. Currently there is no standalone Blu-ray edition of The Face of Another, but if you’re willing to hunt around for a used copy, there’s the 2007 (DVD) triple-feature of Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, and The Face of Another (buy), Teshigahara’s first three fictional features (all from Kôbô Abe novels). As per usual, they offer good sound, clean image, trailers, as well as the musings of film critic James Quandt in the form of a video essay for each movie. Disc the Fourth contains the typical odds and ends: early shorts and documentaries by Teshigahara and a piece on the director’s relationship with Abe. And lest I forget, there’s a booklet-bordering-on-book tucked in the box: an accumulation of essays and an early interview with the director (translated from The French).

(This movie was suggested for review by “Der Ubermolch.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

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